Almost a year ago, CBS anchor Katie Couric suggested that Muslim-Americans needed their own “Cosby Show,” to help improve the image of the community in the US. It’s obvious that if you want to reach a large number of Americans, it has to be through the TV, and it cannot be “educational” programming. “The Cosby Show,” is believed to have helped normalized the idea of the African-American neighbor, and did more for the acceptance of racial diversity than years of multicultural education. In 2011, we still do not have a “Cosby Show” for Muslims, but perhaps we have the equivalent in the 21st century: a reality show.
“All-American Muslim,” airing on TLC Sunday, seems to marry medium with message. If Muslims are truly American, than what better way to demonstrate by using the TV on an American art form of reality television.
I personally have mixed feelings about a reality show based on Muslims. The genre has earned a bad reputation over the last several years, as being over-produced for scandal and conflict. It’s also hard to think of reality TV, like “Jersey Shore,” and then to think about a meaningful show being done about religion. Usually, when families are chosen for the reality treatment, it seems like they are ultra-minorities, like the Duggars, or “John and Kate.” One of the more recent forays into religion and reality TV is “Sister Wives,” which does not inspire confidence as to how Muslims will be presented. However, the humanizing element of these shows cannot be dismissed. Viewers are invested in the lives of the people on the other side of the television, and the shows themselves invariably help to spark serious social discussions.
What a reality show can do, and do better than almost any other format, is demonstrate the diversity of what it means to be Muslim, even within a single ethnic community. The show will focus on the community in Dearborn, MI, which is the largest concentration of Arabs in the United States. Arabs make up about 20 percent of the worldwide Muslim population, and also of the American-Muslim population. So, while the community is relatively small compared to the breadth of the ethnicities present in the US, they have been one of the communities with longest continuous presence in this country, going back over a century.
In this community, you have people who are in every part of society. There are law enforcement officers, medical professionals, athletes, high school coaches, and party planners. While the integrated nature of Muslims are generally well-known to people who pay attention to these sorts of things, I think the power of seeing Muslims in these jobs for the general population will be transformative. It has the potential to make people realize that they may be dealing with Muslims on a daily basis without realizing it.
I think the most important aspect of the show is the great diversity of opinion that will be on display. There are questions of clothing, and not just the hijab, which does generate very rich conversations, but just what is appropriate and modest on a daily basis. There are many independent business women on the show, and we are privy to the conversations as to what limits Arab culture imposes compared to religious mandates. One of the most powerful moments, and I think one that will resonate, is how a couple navigates the fact that reproductive technology has outpaced ethical thinking, whether religious or otherwise. The very deep question of the role and presence of God in a believer’s life is on full display.
We do not have a “Cosby Show” for the Muslim-American community. But the issues in “All-American Muslim” need a different approach, or the show risks becoming a series of after school specials, that deal with a difficult subject in too-neat a way. Instead, the documentary-lite approach of reality TV may end giving us one of the richest treatments of not just Muslims in America, but more broadly of communities of faith.